Sunday, March 17, 2013

WWII veteran Hal Johnson visits Saipan

B-29 pilot Leroy Florence and Marine Hal Johnson Photo by Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

Hal Johnson, standing, center, poses with fellow veteran Leroy Florence, seated, Florence's daughter Dinah Lee, and Hal's friend Billy Jackson, right.
Photo by Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

The members of the Military Historical Tours Inc. group gather for a group photo in front of the Visitor Center, American Memorial Park, Saipan. Photo by Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

WWII veteran Hal Johnson visits Saipan
By Alexie Villegas Zotomayor
Associate Editor / Reporter
Marianas Variety

HE saw action in some of World War II’s fiercest fighting and got through it all unscathed.
90-year-old Hal Johnson of Monroeville, Alabama, appears to bear neither physical nor mental scars.

“I feel good all the time,” he told Variety in an interview at the 360 Revolving Restaurant last week.

Johnson, along with fellow WWII veteran U.S. Army Air Corps Lt. Leroy Florence, were on Saipan last week accompanied by eight other members of the group brought to the islands by Military Historical Tours Inc. headed by director John Powell.

Johnson celebrated his 90th birthday on March 10.

Johnson was 18 years old when he joined the military.

Asked what prompted him to do so, he said, “Everybody was going in.”

He said he had friends in his high school class who volunteered and asked if he too were joining.

"I said I was going to,” said Johnson adding that his friends encouraged him to be a Marine.

But at the time, Johnson said, he didn’t pay much attention to the military branches. “I didn’t care where I got in.”

His trip to boot camp in California was the first he took outside Mississippi.

“I went by myself,” said Johnson who took the long train ride from Mississippi to San Diego.

“The trip wasn’t bad,” he said.

At Marine boot camp, Johnson said, “we had good training.”

After boot camp, deployment immediately followed.

Johnson would soon be a part of the Fourth Division of the Marine Corps that saw action in the Marshalls, the Northern Marianas, and Iwo Jima.

Prior to storming the beaches of Saipan and Tinian, the Fourth Marine Division was in the Marshalls where it set the record as the first division to go into combat and the first division to capture Japanese territory in “Operation Flintlock.”

From the Marshalls, they proceeded to Saipan, then Tinian and Iwo Jima.

In all these battles that culminated in the raising of the U.S. flag atop Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima Johnson said, “Hell, I was afraid all the time.”

For Johnson, the Battle of Iwo Jima was “a tough one.”

“It’s a small island but it was tough. It lasted too long,” added Johnson

Asked how he dealt with his fear, he jokingly replied that he took shots of whiskey.

And in the absence of whiskey, he said, “I just went on whatever it was I had to do.”

When the battle was won on Iwo Jima, Johnson said they left Iwo Jima and landed on Ie Shima by mistake on their way to Okinawa.

He said they were on Okinawa on VJ Day.

Looking back, Johnson said they heared about the use of a powerful bomb they hadn’t ever seen the likes of.

He said they found out about the bomb the day after it was dropped.

“I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t comprehend that a bomb was that [powerful],” he said.

When he heard on the radio that war was over, he said, “I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe it.”

With war over, Johnson said, “All of a sudden, you turned in your combat gear and everything.”

He said nobody could wait to come home.

“We all tried to get on any mode of transportation available that could take us home,” he said.

He ran into someone he knew, a pilot, who offered to take him on the amphibious Consolidated PBY Catalina with 16 other people.

“Come down tonight. There are 16 in my group,” he was told.

He said the aircraft carried barbed wire.

He said, “the 16 of us cleaned the airstrip runway, and they put me in charge.”

From there, they traveled to Hawaii where an aircraft carrier took them to California.

After the war, Johnson started a timber business which he continues to operate to this day.

Coming to Saipan

Johnson’s visit to the island last week was his second. He first came out here during the 50th commemoration of the “liberation” of the island.

He was accompanied by his friend Billy Jackson, his travel buddy, who has also been working for him for the last 24 years.

He said when he got back to Saipan, “I just got down and kissed the ground.”

For his part, Jackson said he relished taking part in the trip to Saipan as he would often hear from Johnson, “Come and see Saipan.”

“It has been an honor to be with this group,” he said.

Asked what made him come back to the island, the 90-year-old veteran said, “I just love Saipan.”

He added, “I like everything about it. I wanted to see it again.”

As to what keeps him busy these days, he said he likes to dance and party.

“But if I want to party, you have to work,” he said.

In retrospect, his experiences during the war still fill him with pride in being a Marine and being part of the successful Marine operations during WWII.

He said, “I love the Marines. It was tough. I will love the Marines till the day I die.”
Johnson and the rest of the Military Historical Tours group left Saipan last Saturday for Guam en route to Iwo Jima on March 13.

MHT brings American war veterans and other individuals to the black sands of Iwo Jima every March.

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